All eyes on California as Bush and Gore battle for the biggest prize

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The Independent US

With more and more states that should have been a safe bet for Al Gore turning marginal ahead of Tuesday's presidential election, Democrats are growing increasingly fearful that they might lose their grip on the biggest prize of all: California.

With more and more states that should have been a safe bet for Al Gore turning marginal ahead of Tuesday's presidential election, Democrats are growing increasingly fearful that they might lose their grip on the biggest prize of all: California.

Opinion polls are still putting the state and its big prize of 54 electoral college votes in the Gore column, estimating the Vice-President's lead over George W Bush at anywhere between five and seven percentage points. But with the national mood appearing to inch crucially in Mr Bush's direction and a blitz of advertising from both sides hitting Californian television screens, confidence in Mr Gore's chances is clearly eroding.

Even in liberal bastions like Santa Monica, the overwhelmingly Democratic beach city next to Los Angeles, Bush-Cheney posters have begun popping up in people's front yards. Plenty of registered Democrats have been wondering whether to opt for Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate who is running at 5 to 8 per cent in the polls, but some are also allowing themselves to be wooed by Mr Bush.

Both leading candidates were in California earlier this week and their contrasting performances were an eloquent illustration of how the race is going. On Tuesday, Mr Gore rallied a clutch of Hollywood celebrities - including Cher, Martin Sheen and Rob Reiner - to an outdoor meeting in Westwood, near the University of California campus. It was a standard stump appearance, with rousing rhetoric and a cry for victory in the Golden State but did not stray far from the usual political discourse.

Mr Bush, by contrast, was at a Christian charity centre in San Jose, opening his heart to recovering drug addicts and alcoholics and making a rare reference to his own drinking, which he gave up overnight on his 40th birthday. "I quit drinking in 1986 and haven't had a drop since then," he said. "It wasn't because of a government programme, by the way, in my particular case. [It was] because I heard a higher call."

At one point, a former drug addict burst into tears as he described his conversion to Christianity. Mr Bush put his hand on his shoulder and said: "That's about as powerful a statement as you can get. That's why I'm here. I believe programmes such as these are the bread of life." The moment was great television, showing Mr Bush in a display of compassionate spontaneity - something his wooden rival would find near-impossible to replicate convincingly. Never mind that Mr Gore's policies are generally regarded to be more forgiving towards the dispossessed; this is an election about perception and personality and Mr Bush knows it.

The style difference also emerged in the very different forum of Jay Leno's late-night television chat show. Mr Bush, who was on on Monday, was easy-going and raised a big laugh when he donned an Al Gore Halloween mask. Mr Gore, by contrast, squirmed awkwardly in his seat on Tuesday when Mr Leno showed him a Rolling Stone cover featuring the Vice-President in tight short trousers. Clearly floundering for a funny line, Mr Gore eventually said: "I think everyone knows people read that magazine for the articles... Can we move right along?"

The fact that either candidate chose to come to California so late in the race is significant. Mr Gore came under massive pressure from the state Democratic party to shore up his dwindling support - diverting time and resources from other, closer races - while Mr Bush saw an opportunity to revel in his rival's discomfort.

Most seriously for the Vice-President, California is now a battle he is fighting on twofronts. Mr Bush is in many ways less of a problem than the Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who is attracting old-fashioned Democrats and legions of college students with his call to overhaul the political system and crush the influence of big corporations on office holders. Mr Nader will be in southern California tomorrow for another of his rock-concert-like "super-rallies"; Mr Gore's appearance in Westwood was in part an attempt to divert some of that youthful enthusiasm back into his campaign.

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